Creating a Wilmette Institute Course, Step by Step

I. Defining the Subject

The first task is to define the subject of the course. Sometimes this is simple; we will use a particular book as the primary text for the course and set up the course to follow the book. The Wilmette Institute does offer courses where one book is the primary text and its author is the primary or sole faculty member. However, we do this not to promote the book, but to promote the ideas and concerns the book covers because they are of importance to the Baha’i community. This a subtle point that authors should consider carefully. Usually we prefer that a course use more than one source, even if most of the course comes from one book, because a diversity of perspectives is important. All course topics must be approved by the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly.

Once one or more potential faculty have been identified, the Director of the Wilmette Institute brings them together in a conference call. The call will take an hour to 90 minutes, at most. Resulting from the call will be:

A. A tentative title for the course. The title can always be refined later. It should be chosen with promotion in mind; not too long, understandable by the largest number of people, interesting, and attractive.

B. A list of study topics the course will cover. A typical Wilmette Institute course has:

– A 4-day introduction where the learners review the course content, become familiar with the software, and create a personal learning plan that reviews what they hope to learn from the course
– Six 1-week study units
– A 3-day “application and integration” unit, for a total of 7 weeks
– Six topics, one for each week-long study unit, help make an ideal length. We can make the course a week longer or shorter if the subject requires it. Courses of seven weeks have been found to be optimal for both learners and faculty.

C. A 1-2 paragraph course description. The description is the key promotional text that learners read when they consider taking the course. It requires a brief overview of the subject and sentences which briefly summarize the six study units. The description is drafted by one or two people after the conference call, circulated to the others by email, edited by the Wilmette Institute staff, and may be further edited the next time the course is offered.

It is important when drafting the description and the list of study units to keep the current priorities of the Baha’i community in mind, and its current plan. Not all courses need to address the plan and the priorities of the Baha’i community directly; this might be difficult in a course on Zoroastrianism or on Baha’i archives, for example (topics we do have courses about). But all courses should aim to deepen the friends and/or the community of interest so that their service to the Baha’i community and to humanity ultimately is strengthened.

D. Summary of the course plan. After the meeting ends, someone (usually the Director) creates a summary of the meeting and emails it to everyone, to create a permanent record of the plans.

E. Course images. Once the course title and topics are defined and the work on the course has started, the Wilmette Institute begins to look for images (photographs or illustrations) to represent the course and its ideas (for example, a course on the Báb might use a picture of the Shrine of the Báb). The Wilmette Institute staff can find something, but welcomes suggestions.

F. MOU and faculty listing. Once the list of faculty is finalized, the Wilmette Institute will send each a memorandum of understanding that summarizes the responsibilities of the faculty and the Wilmette Institute to make the course successful. The Wilmette Institute requests a short biography and photograph of each faculty member to add to its faculty directory: http://wilmetteinstitute.org/faculty/ .

II. Creating the course

Once the basic outline of the course is finished and has been approved, each study unit needs to be developed. Typically, the task is divided up among the faculty and each unit is assigned to one or two people to develop. Each study unit needs:

A. A title and a one paragraph introductory summary. Presumably, this is an expansion of the study topic settled on by the conference call.

B. Resources. These are the items/assets the learners read, watch, or listen to.

Reading assignments could be from book chapters, Bahá’í texts, scholarly papers, compilations from the Bahá’í writings, transcripts of talks, poetry, news articles, web pages, encyclopedia entries, selections from the writings and commentary of the world’s religions. The Wilmette Institute has used sources from Wikipedia to the Encyclopedia Iranica. The goal is to present stimulating reading which enlightens and encourages learners to deepen on the subject and discuss it with each other. The spark of learning arises when questions and answers and conversation arises in the forums in response to assigned readings.

Video is becoming increasingly useful for online learning. Authors and artists are now often creating short videos about their work. TED Talks, short films, online lectures, talks from Bahá’í conferences, excerpts from popular film and music can greatly enhance a course. A PowerPoint presentation with audio narration is easy to make and can be saved as a movie file (.mp4 or .mov) to play online.

The Wilmette Institute wants its courses, if at all possible, to have non-Bahá’í resources as well as Bahá’í resources, because the combination often brings new perspectives to the learners and encourages an outward orientation. Bahá’í resources should include authoritative texts—even a brief compilation—and articles or talks by Bahá’ís.

There is no simple rule of thumb about the quantity or variety of resources a unit needs because it depends on the topic. A standard course unit should take about five hours a week to complete, but half of that time might be taken up by reading postings by faculty and learners and writing the same. If we think in terms of two hours of reading per week, and authoritative texts or scholarly writings require an hour to read 20 pages, the unit should only have 40 or at most 50 pages of reading. If videos are included, the time to watch them should be considered. Short ones (no more than 20 minutes long) are recommended.

One must be careful to avoid loading a unit with too many readings and videos; at most, three items should be required. One can also provide optional resources, but one should avoid providing too many because some learners feel overwhelmed when they have too many choices, and may feel too embarrassed to ask for advice. A very long resources section can be intimidating, also.

Finding the right balance of required readings, a selection of videos, and optional readings or resources can be tricky. The Wilmette Institute staff has experience in building units that encourage a focus on the required texts, followed by resources that will illumine the ideas and arguments that may be presented.

Increasingly, the Wilmette Institute is using live web video to increase engagement. We have a subscription to Go To Webinar, a service that allows up to 100 people to watch and listen to a web broadcast at once. We can record the session, do light editing, and post it to our YouTube channel, where it can either be made public or left private (so that only people in the course can view it). We would like each course to have at least one live web video session scheduled for some point in the course. Our experience, however, is that less than half of the learners are available at any particular time. Because Wilmette Institute learners live throughout the world, it is impossible to require attendance at a live web video session. We also have a toll-free conference number that can be used to meet with learners, and some faculty have used live chat rooms.

C. Activities. After the students read or watch the resources, they need something to do with them. The most common activity we use is the discussion forum. To stimulate the discussion, we provide between 2 and 4 discussion questions or topics and ask the learners to answer at least one or make some other sort of posting about the topic. Learners are also encouraged to suggest a discussion topic, ask questions about the texts, or general questions about the course topic. Learners will also use the forums to share information found on the Internet, to describe activities in their own communities, to tell personal stories, and to share poetry or artwork.

At the beginning of every unit, the Director or a faculty member posts the summary of the unit’s resources and activities in the forum, which are received by most learners as an email. Ideally, one or more faculty will offer personal comments about the subject as well to stimulate discussion. Faculty need to be alert to read postings and respond to questions. It is important to praise or positively comment about postings in order to provide the learners with encouragement and support. Unless the course is being offered for university credit, it does not normally include tests, quizzes, reading responses, outlines, or required reports from the learners. They are encouraged to define their own process of learning.

The Wilmette Institute also does not expect learners to conform to a specific profile or history of Bahá’í experience. As of 2016, there have been learners from 115 different countries and territories. Many of them use English as a second, third or fourth language. They come with every range of Bahá’í experience, from village to city, homeschooled youth to academics. Some courses attract learners who are not Bahá’ís and who have no intention of becoming Bahá’ís. There cannot be any assumptions about what a learner may have read or know before entering a Wilmette Institute course.

In our instructions to learners about how to create a personal learning plan, we ask them to consider the following types of activities during or after the end of the course:

–  Activities which stimulate personal transformation, such as reciting a prayer from the Baha’i Writings daily, memorizing a passage, meditating about the course material, making daily entries into a reflective journal, or conducting a daily conversation with someone about course materials
– Community building activities, such as using course materials and ideas in a class, deepening, fireside, devotional, a talk at Feast, or home visit
– A project, such as a PowerPoint presentation, a research paper, or an artistic project (poem, song, collage, painting, quilt)
– In planning the activities of a study unit, it is advisable to mention these options and in some cases offer specific sample activities.

III. Wrapping Up the Work

Once the course is outlined and the study units have been created, there remain several other tasks to complete:

A. Setting up the course pages in Moodle. Moodle is our CMS or “course management system.” It is a free, open source piece of software used by thousands of educational institutions around the world, including the Bahá’í Institute of Higher Education.

Candace Hill is the Wilmette Institute’s course developer. If the faculty produce a Google doc or a Word document with the unit descriptions, a list of readings, links to web resources, discussion questions, and other activities, she can easily use it to set up the course. Readings can be provided in a PDF format, as a Word document, or a web link. Readings and resources should not be presented in sets, or as very large documents.

Faculty with experience editing Moodle are welcome to edit courses within the standard Wilmette Institute format.

It is important to remember that learners living in 115 countries around the world may be working with older computers, operating systems, and sometimes a dial-up connection. Clarity and consistency in developing activity units is key.

B. Learning Objectives. The Wilmette Institute is now a subscriber to Quality Matters, a nonprofit educational agency that maintains and improves a set of proprietary standards for creating high-quality online courses. The 2011-2013 edition of the standards are here: https://www.qualitymatters.org/sites/default/files/PDFs/StandardsfromtheQMHigherEducationRubric.pdf. We are using the 2015 standards, which are slightly different. We are striving to improve course quality so that as many courses as possible meet these rigorous and valuable standards. One key requirement of Quality Matters is that every study unit should have a set of learning objectives, and the course overall should have learning objectives that reflect the objectives of the units.

Learning objectives should use “active verbs” because these call for measurable outcomes (such as in a forum posting or other activity). There is an excellent three-page summary of the use of active verbs in learning objectives here: http://www.celt.iastate.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/RevisedBloomsHandout-1.pdf .

Currently, our courses have objectives which use the verbs “demonstrate, summarize, list,” and other fairly basic verbs (as opposed to higher order learning called for by verbs such as “critique, plan, create”), but we encourage faculty to be creative with the objectives.

Ideally, creating the learning objectives should be an integral part of designing of each study unit and included in the unit description. Since many faculty are not currently familiar with this aspect of course design, the Wilmette Institute Director will often create the learning objectives. We hope this will change in the next year or so.

C. Drafting a Syllabus. Someone—usually the Director—uses the course description and the descriptions of each study unit, plus any learning objectives, to create a syllabus. The resulting syllabus is placed on the Institute’s public website, and a link to it is provided within the course and within promotional materials. It provides potential learners a lengthier summary of the course and represents a formal and official summary of the course content.

D. Progressive improvement of the course. If the course will be repeated in the future, after it is finished the first time, the faculty should meet by telephone to review how it went and discuss improvements. The Wilmette Institute is only beginning to regularize this step.